Bring us your dead!
It seems an odd request when you're trying to inject new life into a venerated historic homestead but at Highwic House, the glorious Gothic mansion once home to the Buckland family, that's what seven artists have done.
Death now permeates nearly every room of the Newmarket house, making it more Gothic than ever. From the parlour, dining room and once-resplendent ballroom, it stalks across hallways and upstairs to the nursery and children's bedrooms. There are dead rats under the dining room chairs, a bird and a butterfly frozen in flight as a place-setting on the dining table all watched by a jaguar, static on the mantelpiece and a weathered-looking sun bear who isn't going anywhere soon. Be careful where you sit, though, there might be a stoat on the chair.
Crocodile shoes – they'd do more than pinch your toes – are parked under a bed, while in one of the upstairs four-posters, you could fall asleep watching a trio of budgies (after you stepped delicately over the polar bear rug and moved the peacock feathers). Forget about farm animal drawings in the children's room – bugs make a far more intriguing wall frieze and disembodied doll's heads, wearing a butterfly hat, sit in three china teacups.
What would the servants think?
Perhaps they wouldn't mind - after all, the Buckland family taxidermied their beloved pet parrot (species and gender unknown but it was bright orange and green) who used to fly from Highwic's manicured gardens across the fields of Newmarket to a relative's nearby house. If it were alive today – and legal in the country – it might perch on the Westfield shopping mall sign opposite the homestead. Where, no doubt, some of the 21 children would spend most of their weekend.
Depending on your sensibilities, The Art of Death is creepy or macabrely beautiful but the 1862 homestead makes an apt location to show off the revival of a pastime last widely popular, for all sorts of reasons, in the Victorian era.
In the 21st century, taxidermy has been resurrected by predominantly female artists with a mind for the ethical and an eye for the artful. Animals are found, not hunted. The already long dead re-purposed and the lines between taxidermy and contemporary sculpture distorted.
Antoinette Ratcliffe, Karley Feaver, Hayley Theyers, Sophie MacDonnell, Jane Thorne, Paola King-Borrero and Kate Rampling have created installations which, in their own odd way, interrogate our attitudes to death, beauty and the boundaries of art.
"The Art of Death exhibition hopes that the experience of taxidermy and other death related art forms, combined with multi-sensory events and experiences, will encourage us all to live fully by exploring our own ideas of mortality," reads the flyer.
There's a nod to the past, with some of Auckland War Memorial Museum's 5000 taxidermied creatures pulled out of storage and, if you decide to go "beyond the ropes", a range of art classes and events.
The Art of Death is on at Highwic until Sunday, October 27, with special activities planned for the school holidays and Auckland's annual Art Week (October 12-20). More information - themetropolitan.club